THE OLDEST standing skyscraper in America -- maybe the first -- an exquisite nine-story example of eclectic Victorian architecture, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Although New York and Chicago are normally associated with skyscrapers, the oldest example is in neither city but rather in Washington -- the Sun Building at 1317 F St. NW.

Washington's claim has been largely obscured by claims from New York, which has some of the tallest buildings in the world, and Chicago, which has the two tallest. In fact, the 1984 centennial of Chicago's Home Insurance Building occasioned an article in The New York Times on whether the first skyscraper had been built in Chicago or New York. New York's contender, the six-story Equitable Life Building, was completed in 1870, 14 years before Chicago's 10-story Home Insurance Building. If the New York's Equitable Life Building was a true skyscraper, it won hands down.

The Times article did not mention the Sun Building.

But the case can be made that neither New York's Equitable Life Building nor Chicago's Home Insurance Building qualifies as a true skyscraper and that the Sun Building, although the last of the three to be built -- later than the Equitable Building by 17 years and the Home Insurance Building by three -- is indeed the first skyscraper.

The argument is now largely academic. The Equitable Life Building burned down in 1912. The Home Insurance Building succumbed to the wrecker's ball in 1931. At this point, the Sun Building appears to be the world's oldest skyscraper.

Now restored to its original elegance, the Sun Building gives a hint of what Washington was like before the homogenizing influence of post-World War II architecture began erasing the city's history. Built by A.S. Abell, publisher of The Baltimore Sun, it originally served as a home for the newspaper's Washington bureau. Upon its completion in 1887, The Baltimore SunHershel Shanks, a lawyer and part owner of the Sun Building, is editor and publisher of the Biblical Archaeology Review. declared the building "the most imposing private structure in the national capital."

Now what about the claim of a nine-story building to be a skyscraper? As it turns out, architectural historians differ as to what constitutes a skyscraper. Oddly enough, minimum height, as such, does not seem to be a criterion. No one suggests that because the Equitable Life Building was only 130 feet high it is disqualified as a skyscraper.

At the very least, a skyscraper is a high office building whose upper stories are as economically desirable as the lower floors -- an economic criterion, but nonetheless real. Naturally, this prerequisite implies an adequate plumbing system, a pressured water supply and central heating. But, above all, it means a safe elevator. And this the Equitable Life Building had -- the first such office building to have one. The highest rents were charged for the highest floors of the building, and soon thereafter it became fashionable to have one's office on the upper stories, rather than the lower ones.

A number of buildings like Equitable Life soon followed in its train, but their height was severely limited because the walls were load-bearing, self-supporting. The rule of thumb at the time required a 12-inch wall for one story with an increase in the base thickness of at least four inches for each additional story. At six floors, the walls on the first floor would have to be nearly three feet thick. In the Equitable Life Building, the thickness of the walls was reduced on each higher floor, creating a stepped, pyramid-like wall on the inside, with the area of each floor slightly larger than the one below. How to eliminate these fortress-like base walls? The answer was the metal-supported wall -- first iron, then steel. In this way, the walls could be of uniform width and minimum thickness. It was this advance that gave Chicago's Home Insurance Building its claim to being the first skyscraper. Its walls were supported by a metal frame or skeleton. The walls themselves were what we today call curtain walls. The weight was borne by the metal frame.

If that's what it takes to make a skyscraper, then the Home Insurance Building prevails over Washington's Sun Building for the honor of being the first skyscraper. But many skyscraper scholars would add another, more subjective element to their definition, an aesthetic element that relates to the quality of the architecture, not just to its technical prowess. To be a skyscraper, a building must look tall, stand tall and feel tall.

In the words of Louis Sullivan, the greatest of the early theorists and architects of the skyscraper, a skyscraper "must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exaltation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line."

Paul Goldberger, in his authoritative book, "The Skyscraper," agrees: A skyscraper must be "tall architecturally even more than it is physically."

By this test, the Home Insurance Building fails. As Goldberger observes, it is "fundamentally a little building made big." It "emphasizes horizontality and has no facade elements that could not have been present in a smaller building." The Home Insurance Building consisted simply of horizontal floors piled on top of each other. It did have a supporting metal skeleton and an elevator, but these qualities did not make it a skyscraper.

By this architectural test, New York's Equitable Life Building also fails. As Goldberger observes, "In terms of architectural expression of height, the Equitable was more conservative even than . . . Home Insurance."

Washington's Sun Building not only has an elevator and metal-supported walls, but it also meets the aesthetic requirement. Although the Sun Building's nine stories are small by today's standards, its design is "about being tall." It is an expression of height. Above its two-story, triple-arched entrance facade, two columns of projecting bay windows emphasize its verticality.

Above the strips of bay windows is a carved marble cornice that extends across the facade, and above the cornice is the final story whose twin windows have pointed gable heads adding to the feeling of height. Rising above it all was a 52-foot clock tower of iron and slate, on top of which was a finial in the form of a golden sun. Its clean, powerful lines dominated the Washington skyline for decades. (Unfortunately, the clock tower was removed in the 1950s when it was condemned for safety reasons; it should be replaced.)

Goldberger tells us that "all three {elevator, metal frame and architectural verticality are} essential elements of a skyscraper." Strangely, no skyscraper historian seems to have noticed the Sun Building. It is not even mentioned in any of the major books and articles on the subject. Recently, however, it has been placed on the National Register of Historic Sites.

Why the Sun Building has been ignored isn't clear. Certainly, it is not because its architect was unknown or undistinguished. Indeed, it was designed by one of the leading architects of his day, Alfred B. Mullett, who, as supervising architrect of the Treasury Department, had designed the State, War and Navy Building (now the Executive Office Building, just west of the White House), the San Francisco Mint and major federal buildings in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and elsewhere. (Among his few other Washington buildings still standing are the old Apex Liquor store, now beautifully restored at Pennsylvania and Sixth Street NW, and the Nigerian Embassy at 2201 M St. NW, once the home of Gen. Noah Jeffries.)

Heavy cast-iron fireplaces, which still grace many of the high-ceilinged offices in The Sun Building, display a half sun with radiating rays in the triangular pediment beneath the black marble mantles. The rays from a half sun are still seen on each edition of the 150-year-old Baltimore newspaper. Above the acanthus-leaved capitals of the four fluted columns on either side of the fireplaces, impressed in the bronzed cast iron, is a black-eyed Susan, or sunflower, the state flower of Maryland -- another reminder of the building's origins.

While only half of the sun is displayed on the fireplaces, on the outside of the building, above the marble doorway, is the full sun carved on a marble balcony and now restored by master Italian marble artisans. In contrast to the half sun on the fireplaces, the rays of the sun over the entrance radiate in all directions.

According to a contemporaneous account in the Washington Evening Star, "No opportunity has been omitted for obtaining the best material and using it in the most substantial and workmanlike style. . . . The style of construction is massive, as required by the great size of the building, yet the introduction of graceful lines and the blending of the smooth-faced blocks with massive rock-faced blocks imparts an element of lightness which is pleasing to the eye." The article concluded that "Its huge and elegant front would make it a conspicuous object among the splendid business structures on Broadway, New York or upon any of the famed thoroughfares of the large cities of the country."

Beneath each column of bay windows on either side of the entrance facade is a handsome lion sculptured in detail, looking down from the third story somewhat benignly -- a typical decorative feature of the time. Gargoyles, human faces and animals commonly peer out from the stone of mid-Victorian buildings.

But the focal face on the front of the building presents an intellectual puzzle. There, in the center of the two-story entrance arch, the sculptor has depicted an over-sexed old man -- a satyr easily recognizible to the careful observer by the pair of goat's horns growing from his head. Although the Victorian age is known for its prudery, modern historians have amply demonstrated this was merely skin-deep. Still, it was not a time when sexuality was flaunted. How to account, then, for this sculpture that dominates the building's entrance? There he is, large as life, eyes popping out of his skull, licking his chops with curled tongue. What in the world is this doing on a mid-Victorian building? Is it some tongue-in-cheek joke? Or is something more serious and subtle being said? Or was the Greek satyr simply part of the architectural repertoire of the time, like gargoyles and lions?

The most dramatic feature of the interior is a vast nine-story marble staircase flanked on each floor by huge cast-iron Corinthian columns set on marble floors. Topped by a gleaming brass handrail, an enormous iron balustrade of heavy foliate scrollwork in 15th-century Italian style wends its way up the staircase.

The Sun Building holds a place not only in architectural history but also in political history. Bureaucracy was born here -- at least if bureaucracy is equated with the administrative agency. The Sun Building was the first home of the first federal administrative agency -- the Interstate Commerce Commission -- which moved in shortly after Congress enacted the enabling legislation in 1887.

By 1907, suitably puffed up with its own self-importance, the ICC asked the building's owners (the building was sold to a bank in 1904) to create for it a mammoth hearing-room where its cases could be heard with appropriate pomp. Approached by a separate marble stairway, this hearing-room, with its neo-Greek coffered ceiling 18 feet above the floor, can still be seen on the ninth floor of the building, although it is now subdivided by half-walls into six offices and a large central secretarial area. An elaborate copper dome covers the hearing room on the outside of the building.

In the 1920s, G-men of the Bureau of Investigation -- forerunner of the FBI -- planned their attacks on gun-toting gangsters and mobsters from offices in the Sun Building.

Gradually, however, the building lost its luster with the rest of Washington's downtown, until the recent renaissance restored the whole area, including the newly-reopened Willard Hotel, to the magnificence of an earlier day. The Sun Building was restored in 1982. It now serves as an office building for a variety of professionals including lawyers, lobbyists and journalists. If the Sun Building has been snubbed in the literature, it has eclipsed its rivals on the ground. It still stands.

Among old, tall buildings that have survived, only two rival the Sun Building. The remarkable Flatiron Building at Broadway and 23rd Street in New York, with its unusual triangular shape, is surely a skyscraper, but it belongs to a later generation. It was completed in 1903.

The other is the Monadnock Building in Chicago, a masterpiece of early design owing to the clarity and strength of its clear verticality, achieved through columns of extruding bay windows. Interestingly, this same kind of expression of height was achieved four years earlier by the Sun Building's columns of bay windows. The famous Monadnock was completed only in 1891. Moreover, the Monadnock is a solid masonry structure without metal support. At its base, its walls are six feet thick.

Despite the absence of metal-supported walls, Goldberger would like very much to pronounce the Monadnock a skyscraper: "The Monadnock, oddly, is not a steel-frame building . . . . yet it is a skyscraper as surely as any of Sullivan's works." He concludes with some frustration, "There is no neat answer. . . to the question of what was the first skyscraper." Yet, if the Monadnock Building qualifies, surely the Sun Building does.

Inside the Sun Building life goes on unconcerned by the slight of years. The patina of heavy, old oak molding gleams. Massive doors swing soundlessly on large polished brass hinges. Elegant period chandeliers hang from 12-foot-high ceilings. The offices smell of rich leather. Oriental rugs cushion the step. Victorian paintings and etchings rest the eye. In this quiet elegance, one is easily transported to a time more serene and less hectic than the present. In this atmosphere, no one really cares whether the Sun Building is the first, or even the oldest, skyscraper.